Last week the capital city of Canberra, Australia, hosted the 2016 International Festival of Landscape Architecture: Notin My Backyard, organized by the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects. In the first half of a wide-ranging conversation with the Festival’s Creative Director, Richard Weller, Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at PennDesign, talks about his assignment, the state of the profession in Australia and globally, and its history.
What attracted you to the Creative Director job?
The profession of landscape architecture in Australia was established in 1966 so the Festival is a fiftieth birthday party and Australians generally throw good parties. The AILA asked me to conceive of an overarching theme, the speakers and the programming, so it was a creative challenge for me to think about what would make for a landmark event at this moment in time.
What’s behind your choices in curating the Festival?
The festival is titled Not In My Backyard and the overarching theme is design in the age of the Anthropocene. It's a radically different world to what it was in 1966, and now landscape architecture would like to think of itself as a profession that can take real responsibility for how we live with ecological systems and how we build our cities. And that's all to do with how we respond to climate change and how we think of ourselves in the age of the Anthropocene.
What’s behind the Festival’s title?
It relates to 3 things. The first is that when you tell someone you are a landscape architect they often then say “Oh, can you come over and look at my backyard?” The second is that NIMBYism is a problem as we try to increase the density of our cities and improve their ecological performance. The third is that now everything, every image, every molecule of carbon is in everyone’s backyard. The whole planet is our backyard. For these reasons, the first word “Not” is crossed out. You can't any longer isolate yourself from what's happening.
Are there perceptible differences in how landscape architecture is understood or practiced in Australia versus in the States?
One major point of difference is what I would refer to as the psychology of reconciliation. Reconciliation is the process by which Australia is trying to mend its historical and continuing abuse of its indigenous people. In the United States, we’re worried about climate change, ecology and public space and how these things relate to contemporary culture and so too are Australian landscape architects but a big point of difference is that in Australia landscape architects strongly believe their work is connected to the process of reconciliation. The vast and mysterious lands of Australia are synonymous with indigenous culture and to appreciate one is to appreciate the other.
What does that difference stem from?
The process of colonizing and reshaping the landscape with industry and agriculture in the United States was so thorough. In Australia much of the land is not able to be converted to agriculture and with that you get a different national sense of place. Australians are also ashamed of how they treated indigenous people and the fact that when the British first colonized Australia they did so upon the legal fiction that is was “terra nullius” a land literally devoid of people.
How has the profession changed since you started out?
The pendulum swings back and forward on this, but in the '60s, it was very much an environmental narrative about concerns for pollution, deforestation, and those sorts of issues. The city was the problem and nature – in the form of landscape – would redeem us. Now we are fully engaged with the city as a form of new nature, a system that is threaded through the landscape on all scales. And with this engagement with the city the profession has become much more sophisticated in terms of aesthetics and more scientific in terms of improving ecological performance. Cities are the solution, not the problem. They are also the theatre of life and landscape architects are now very good at doing the sets. We’re setting the scene of the Anthropocene!